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Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow

The Russian state “is not a country, it’s a circus,” national security adviser Alexander Lebed complained to journalists last week. A few hours before, following accusations that he was planning to seize power with the help of the Russian military and Chechen rebels, Lebed had been abruptly booted from office. At his press conference, the longtime general and hero of the people launched his normal array of barbed one-liners, accusing fellow government leaders of being “rotten,” describing President Boris Yeltsin as “elderly and sick,” then adding that he had no plans to be critical of the President: “I don’t hit a man when he’s down.” But for all the snarls, he had trouble looking unhappy at finally being fired. In fact, he had been trying for months to get himself sacked. In a circus, one must remember, not everything is as it seems.

Hardly anyone in the Yeltsin administration, including those close to the top, seems to believe that Lebed was really planning a coup. The Kremlin’s willingness to tolerate Lebed’s constant criticism, however, has provided a subtle barometer of the Yeltsin administration’s own confidence. In the past few weeks this appears to have declined sharply. Lebed, the most popular politician in the country at large, has never had many admirers in the government. Until now, however, the predominant view among people like presidential chief of staff Anatoli Chubais has been that Lebed should be kept inside the tent, where he can be at least partly controlled, rather than allowed to run amuck in the world outside. Now the Kremlin has decided that Lebed is more dangerous inside than out. Chubais and others seem to be basing their conclusion on their own grim analysis of what lies ahead for Russia in the months to come. They fear that Yeltsin’s health is too precarious to call and are concerned that Russia could face mass unrest later this year if the government continues to be months behind in paying salaries. Should this happen, they reason, Lebed might make a grab for power. And if he stays in office for a few more months, he might have enough time to build the sort of base that would allow him to succeed.

Lebed’s firing was the climax of three unedifying weeks of political maneuvering and smear campaigns, conducted through the media and sometimes by them, during which former Kremlin officials and present senior ministers have traded mutual accusations of contract murders, high treason, corruption and spying on one another. Nobody, of course, has been arrested in connection with these allegations. During most of this time Yeltsin–now largely reduced to symbolic 60-sec. taped appearances on the evening news–sat quietly by, occasionally expressing incongruously mild disapproval. All this came to an end in the middle of last week. Interior Minister Anatoli Kulikov, Lebed’s open and bitter enemy, declared that Lebed was planning a coup, that he wanted to place most of the country’s intelligence and military machine under his control and had proposed the creation of a 50,000-strong Russian Legion–ostensibly to fight crime, but in fact, Kulikov said, to be used in a power grab.

Lebed brushed off the charges and promised counterallegations that Kulikov had set up concentration camps in Chechnya where thousands had died. His bodyguards then detained four Interior Ministry security agents who, they say, were following the national security adviser.

Some Russian observers noted that the main piece of evidence Kulikov produced regarding a possible coup was a document dating back to late August, which he admitted having in his possession since about that time. No matter; the normally sluggish government suddenly moved fast. Within 24 hours of Kulikov’s going public with his allegations, Lebed was out. The announcement was made on TV by Yeltsin himself. The sadly feeble-looking President at times stared blankly at the wrong TV camera and seemed to take forever to place his signature on the decree dismissing Lebed. He made no reference to the mutiny allegations. Instead he complained that Lebed was not a team player and referred angrily to the new political alliance that Lebed has formed with the disgraced former chief of presidential security, Alexander Korzhakov.

If Yeltsin and those around him had their reasons for giving Lebed the ax, the general had his own for getting it, and he attempted to provoke Yeltsin into ousting him on at least three occasions recently. Each time Yeltsin, whose canny political instincts are undiminished by physical ill-health, chose to ignore him. Yeltsin did not want to make a martyr. The President’s career had, after all, been made when he was dismissed from the Soviet communist leadership. Lebed has been feeling thwarted ever since going into the government in June, in what was seen at the time as a brilliant move by Yeltsin campaign organizer Chubais. Lebed took the job expecting to be both heir apparent and acting President. But other equally ambitious politicians–Chubais, who was named presidential chief of staff after the elections, and Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin–had no intention of handing over power. Lebed found himself increasingly hemmed in. His departure now gives him the chance he has been longing for: to portray himself as the rejected prophet, the man too honest for the Yeltsin administration.

But his dismissal also sheds a revealing light on the deep anxiety that lies behind the bland confidence the Kremlin likes to exude. The President’s entourage are much more worried about Yeltsin’s health–and the possibility of abrupt incapacitation–than they will admit publicly. And if the government falls even farther behind this fall and winter with its payroll, aides are concerned about public uprisings. Their nightmare is that both events will happen simultaneously. Speaking to TIME, a Kremlin adviser described the scenario they sought to pre-empt by firing Lebed: unrest breaks out, Yeltsin’s failing health disables him, and Lebed declares the President unfit to rule, calling on the military and security structures to help him “induce order” in the country. Nobody, however, except Interior Minister Kulikov seems to take seriously the tale of an imminent Lebed-led mutiny. “It was as good an excuse as any,” said a senior government official. And Lebed’s plans do not include a treason trial: he told journalists he was going to take a weekend off, then build a political movement in preparation for forthcoming elections–presidential, he hinted. In the meantime, he said modestly, he would “look into” Afghanistan and other regional crises.

Kremlin sources do claim, however, that Lebed has in recent weeks tried to extend his control over the country’s security and military structures. And they were clearly unnerved last week when Lebed denounced the Defense Ministry’s intention to reduce the size of the airborne forces, including some of Russia’s last remaining elite troops. Lebed, a former airborne officer, railed against Defense Minister Igor Rodionov’s planned cuts. They were “criminal,” he said, thus bringing into the open a monthlong rift with his one-time protege in the Defense Ministry. A senior airborne officer also spoke out against the cuts. He was removed last week at the same time as Lebed. The officer, a high-ranking government official said, had been guilty of “dangerous disobedience” at a “very delicate political moment.” Lebed, sources in the Kremlin and in the government allege, had encouraged the officer to speak out.

Lebed’s dismissal also casts a disturbing shadow over the Chechnya peace plan. While the rest of the government was apparently sunk in paralysis, Lebed almost single-handedly brought the fighting to an end last August–at the cost, his enemies in the administration say, of sanctioning Chechnya’s eventual secession. Kulikov, the man who led the charge to force Lebed out, has been a vocal opponent of the peace agreement, and is widely suspected of wanting to resume combat in Chechnya. The Interior Minister last week went so far as to hint broadly that Lebed had links with Chechen organized crime. Even some Kremlin sources who view Lebed’s departure with satisfaction are worried about Chechnya. “I don’t know if Kulikov has the brains to avoid a renewal of fighting in Chechnya,” said the Kremlin adviser. “But the President has to put all his energies into avoiding a further outbreak of fighting.” Still, on Saturday, Yeltsin replaced Lebed as chief negotiator in Chechnya with veteran politician Ivan Rybkin, who was also named the new national security adviser. Rybkin has never held a senior military post.

Watching events from Washington, the Clinton Administration expressed surprise only at the timing. They, like many of their Russian counterparts, had viewed Lebed’s ouster as only a matter of time: his ambition was too big to coexist with Yeltsin’s, they thought. And Yeltsin, the officials added, was not one to tolerate a rival center of power in his administration. U.S. intelligence analysts, however, found no credible evidence that Lebed had been trying to incite a mutiny. And they, like the Russian media, noted that the increased security measures announced by Kulikov after his public allegations against Lebed never materialized.

The extra checkpoints Kulikov spoke of apparently existed only on paper, and no reinforcements seemed to move into Moscow. Washington speculates that by announcing the measures, the Interior Minister was simply trying to reinforce his assertion that Lebed was plotting a coup. Despite this, the Clinton Administration apparently felt a sneaking sympathy for the decision to fire Lebed. “The guy overstepped his bounds. He was a bad team player and got fired by his boss,” said a senior White House aide. American officials concede that the Russian military’s officer corps would not be happy about the dismissal, but Washington does not expect any dangerous turmoil in the ranks.

Nevertheless, dropping the general is still a big gamble for the Kremlin. Lebed remains far and away the most popular politician in the country. If fighting in Chechnya breaks out again, warns Alexander Oslon, who polled for Yeltsin during the presidential campaign, Lebed’s popularity could take on “legendary” proportions. At the very least, Oslon says, the infighting that has accompanied the Lebed affair will deepen public disillusionment in the political process.

The one thing Lebed’s many enemies are pinning their hopes on is that he will finally sully his squeaky-clean image because of his new alliance with that other out-of-work general, Alexander Korzhakov. Korzhakov is not viewed as either clean or an outsider. He is widely alleged to be corrupt, and is a muddied Kremlin infighter. But during his postdismissal press conference, Lebed strongly defended Korzhakov as a “slandered Russian general.” He borrowed some of Korzhakov’s language and analysis, describing Chubais disparagingly as Russia’s “regent” who had deliberately undermined Yeltsin’s health by pushing the President too hard during this year’s election campaign.

Then the cashiered national security adviser started off his weekend by going to the theater. With his usual subtlety, he chose a play about Ivan the Terrible. “I want to learn how to govern a state properly,” he explained.

–With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington

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